Daily Archives: December 9, 2005

Andrew Sullivan on torture, and more

Andrew Sullivan responds to Charles Krauthammer’s article on torture, here. Definitely worth reading.

Some highlights:

What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism. You see one individual granted the most complete power he can ever hold over another. Not just confinement of his mobility–the abolition of his very agency. Torture uses a person’s body to remove from his own control his conscience, his thoughts, his faith, his selfhood.

This is a radical and daring idea: that we must extinguish human freedom in a few cases in order to maintain it for everyone else. It goes beyond even the Bush administration’s own formal position, which states that the United States will not endorse torture but merely “coercive interrogation techniques.” (Such techniques, in the administration’s elaborate definition, are those that employ physical force short of threatening immediate death or major organ failure.) And it is based on a premise that deserves further examination: that our enemies actually deserve torture; that some human beings are so depraved that, in Krauthammer’s words, they “are entitled to no humane treatment.”

Let me state for the record that I am second to none in decrying, loathing, and desiring to defeat those who wish to replace freedom with religious tyranny of the most brutal kind–and who have murdered countless innocent civilians in cold blood. Their acts are monstrous and barbaric. But I differ from Krauthammer by believing that monsters remain human beings. In fact, to reduce them to a subhuman level is to exonerate them of their acts of terrorism and mass murder–just as animals are not deemed morally responsible for killing. Insisting on the humanity of terrorists is, in fact, critical to maintaining their profound responsibility for the evil they commit.

And, if they are human, then they must necessarily not be treated in an inhuman fashion. You cannot lower the moral baseline of a terrorist to the subhuman without betraying a fundamental value.

These two crucial points bear repeating.

(1) One of the great dangers of sanctioning torture in any form is the risk of developing the mentality that “they deserve it” — which means that torture may be used even when it’s not necessary to extract vital information, and may become an occasion for morally sanctioned sadistic enjoyment.

(2) However horrendous the terrorists’ deeds may be, to regard them as subhuman is a betrayal not only of our own humanity, but of the need to hold them accountable for their evil acts.

Sullivan also addresses Krauthammer’s question about what is to be done in a “ticking timb bomb” when we have in our custody a terrorist possessing information that could prevent, say, the nuclear annihilation of New York in the next 24 hours.

It is possible to concede that, in an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized. One imperfect but instructive analogy is civil disobedience. In that case, laws are indeed broken, but that does not establish that the laws should be broken. In fact, civil disobedience implies precisely that laws should not be broken, and protesters who engage in it present themselves promptly for imprisonment and legal sanction on exactly those grounds. They do so for demonstrative reasons. They are not saying that laws don’t matter. They are saying that laws do matter, that they should be enforced, but that their conscience in this instance demands that they disobey them.

In extremis, a rough parallel can be drawn for a president faced with the kind of horrendous decision on which Krauthammer rests his entire case. What should a president do? The answer is simple: He may have to break the law. In the Krauthammer scenario, a president might well decide that, if the survival of the nation is at stake, he must make an exception. At the same time, he must subject himself–and so must those assigned to conduct the torture–to the consequences of an illegal act. Those guilty of torturing another human being must be punished — or pardoned ex-post-facto. If the torture is revealed to be useless, if the tortured man is shown to have been innocent or ignorant of the information he was tortured to reveal, then those responsible must face the full brunt of the law for, in Krauthammer’s words, such a “terrible and monstrous thing.” In Michael Walzer’s formulation, if we are to have dirty hands, it is essential that we show them to be dirty.

What Krauthammer is proposing, however, is not this compromise, which allows us to retain our soul as a free republic while protecting us from catastrophe in an extremely rare case. He is proposing something very different: that our “dirty hands” be wiped legally clean before and after the fact. That is a Rubicon we should not cross, because it marks the boundary between a free country and an unfree one.

Krauthammer, moreover, misses a key lesson learned these past few years. What the hundreds of abuse and torture incidents have shown is that, once you permit torture for someone somewhere, it has a habit of spreading.


Sullivan also offers a helpful historical analogy:

In World War II, American soldiers were often tortured by the Japanese when captured. But FDR refused to reciprocate. Why? Because he knew that the goal of the war was not just Japan’s defeat but Japan’s transformation into a democracy. He knew that, if the beacon of democracy–the United States of America–had succumbed to the hallmark of totalitarianism, then the chance for democratization would be deeply compromised in the wake of victory.

No one should ever underestimate the profound impact that the conduct of American troops in World War II had on the citizens of the eventually defeated Axis powers. Germans saw the difference between being liberated by the Anglo-Americans and being liberated by the Red Army. If you saw an American or British uniform, you were safe. If you didn’t, the terror would continue in different ways. Ask any German or Japanese of the generation that built democracy in those countries, and they will remind you of American values–not trumpeted by presidents in front of handpicked audiences, but demonstrated by the conduct of the U.S. military during occupation. …

If American conduct was important in Japan and Germany, how much more important is it in Iraq and Afghanistan. … In Iraq, we had a chance not just to tell but to show the Iraqi people how a democracy acts. And, tragically, in one critical respect, we failed. That failure undoubtedly contributed to the increased legitimacy of the insurgency and illegitimacy of the occupation, and it made collaboration between informed Sunnis and U.S. forces far less likely. What minuscule intelligence we might have plausibly gained from torturing and abusing detainees is vastly outweighed by the intelligence we have forfeited by alienating many otherwise sympathetic Iraqis and Afghans, by deepening the divide between the democracies, and by sullying the West’s reputation in the Middle East.

And that’s an excellent point, too. In response to my recent column on torture in The Boston Globe, I received an email with the saracstic subject line, “The horror. The horror,” whose author wrote:

You write: “If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there’s no telling how low we’re going to go on that slippery slope.”

But if we declare torture is never acceptable and broadcast it to the world, the next time we capture a couple of terrorists they can comfort one another with this gentle reminder, “Don’t worry; all they can do is mess with your head.”

But is there any appreciable benefit for us from terrorists, including rank-and-file insurgents in Iraq, knowing that they may be tortured if captured? Will such knowledge lead some to commit suicide or fight to the death rather than surrender, thus preventing us from obtaining useful infomation? And is it possible that the rank-and-file insurgents are people whose hearts and minds could still be won — something that will be much less likely if we gain a reputation as torturers?

Update: A question that has come up in the comments, and has also been raised by Jonah Goldberg at The Corner: Why is it so much worse to torture someone than to kill or imprison them, since loss of freedom and especially death also amount to drastic violations of human rights? It seems to me that one of Andrew Sullivan’s points — that torture uses what is animal in us to defeat what is human — is very salient here. Unlike imprisonment, torture robs the individual of all control of his or her body and mind. It’s quite possible to maintain one’s human dignity and selfhood while imprisoned; not so under torture, which reduces one’s entire being to animal sensation. Death does not do that; it simply ends the individual’s existence, in this world or altogether (depending on what your beliefs are). Of course, there are many examples of people choosing death over severe pain — not only because of the suffering involved, I suspect, but also because of the loss of dignity.

Update 2: Jonah replies, arguing, in essence, that Andrew Sullivan and I (and other anti-torture absolutists) are merely expressing a subjective viewpoint that torture is worse than death or punishment. He makes an argument that I think has showed up in my comments as well:

I would take fifty lashes and some waterboarding over the death penalty any day of the week. Indeed, I’d take fifty lashes and waterboarding over fifty years in jail.

Well, so would I, probably. But I think that’s neither here nor there. If I had a choice between being gang-raped and being accidentally run over by a car and killed, I’d choose the gang rape, but that doesn’t make the rapist morally superior to the reckless driver. A lot of criminals here in the U.S. might choose having a hand chopped off over serving 25 years in prison. Yet we, quite rightly I think, regard societies that chop off people’s hands and ears as punishment as far more barbaric than ours.

Jonah also writes:

Young and Sullivan are imposing their aesthetic standards of their consciences, for want of a better term, to the torture debate and elevating them above everyone else’s.

Not to sound overly melodramatic here, but I find it rather frightening that Jonah is reducing a basic principle of post-Enlightenment Western culture — the bodily inviolability of the individual as a cardinal principle — to mere aesthetic preference.


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